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No place for flip-flops (Pt 2)

By roving hack Ignatius Rake
Panmunjom, North and South Korea

Posted March 10, 2012
north korea
Inside North Korea: Rumours of food shortages grossly exaggerated. © Ignatius Rake

Crossing into North Korea, our valiant hack risks all to expose the truth some people don't want told.

If you haven't read Part One of this fantastic article, you might want to do so here HERE first.

Whenever I've seen Western news reports about North Korea, they've always portrayed the place as some kind of backwards hellhole full of ugly commie buildings and massive murals of Kim Il-sung, his son and successor Kim Jong-il and now his son and successor Kim Jong-un.

Well, having been there, I can personally attest that North Korea is nothing like that at all.

In fact, it looks exactly like the South.

Even down to the paint on the walls and the carpet on the floors.

What's more, I've got the photos to prove it.

I experienced this amazing revelation while mooching around the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) Conference Room.

Also known as T2, this rectangular hut is a fairly unusual building.

Employing an architectural style reminiscent of a static caravan and painted inside and out in the UN's favourite shade of blue, one half of it sits inside South Korea while the other half sits in the North.

Exactly how they got that one through planning permission I'll never know, but their cause may have been helped by the fact that T2 also happens to be the place where the two sides come to split pubes about military matters.

More importantly from a world peace point of view, T2 is also the only place where an emmet can cross the MDL without being shot or deemed a defector.

Which is exactly how I came to set foot in the world's only dynastic commie dictatorship.

For a whole 10 minutes.

Maybe a bit more.

T2, though, is not the only building with a front door in the South and another in the North, being but one of three such powder blue powwow huts sitting side by side on 'Conference Row'.

Not to be outdone by a bunch of capitalist running dogs, the North Koreans also have a Portakabin-type thing that straddles the MDL: the nearby 'Monkey House', from which, we were informed, they like to flip the bird at passing UNC officers.

All these buildings, along with the two larger structures operated by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC)1, quite literally occupy the middle ground between the JSA's two dominant structures, the UNC's Freedom House and the North's Panmungak.

Locked in a staring match of monumental proportions, these latter two buildings ape the antics of their respective side's MPs before the UNC lot slapped on some aviator shades.

"If the soldiers here can't fight with guns or their fists, they'll fight with their eyes," our military guide said, explaining that the two South Korean MPs watching over us in T2 were there both to protect us and to stop us defecting.

Employing a modified taekwondo stance, they were a pretty intimidating sight to behold with their clenched fists, hidden eyes and cold, emotionless expressions.

Coiled aggression primed to explode at a moment's notice.

Mandatory black belts in either taekwondo or judo, these South Korean MPs don't flinch, they don't piss, they don't even change their socks.

They are 'ROK ready' as they say in the JSA.

And I for one wasn't up for pissing them off.

Especially not the one guarding the door to the North.

Although it did cross my mind to give him a wedgie.

As it was, our two guards had a fairly quiet time of it, but things don't always go so smoothly.

"Two weeks ago," Michelle said, "one of my colleagues was showing a group around the JSA. They had just left the Conference Room when one of them turned round and ran towards North Korea."

"Shit, what happened?" I asked, recalling that Russian chap in '84.

"He was stopped on the border by a tour guide and a soldier."

"So what did they do to him?"

"I don't know, but I know it was a Western tourist."

"I bet he was popular," I said, imagining the long ride back to Seoul, or a secret facility in Syria.

"It did cause quite an incident," she said rather diplomatically.

I bet it bloody did.

Haven for wildlife: Them white things is bird things. © Ignatius Rake

Like all good communists, the North Koreans love big hats.

However, if we'd been hoping to get a close-range eyeful of one of them in their dartboard-sized titfas then we were in for a disappointment.

Perhaps they were all busy watching reruns of Kim Jong-il hitting 11 holes-in-one the first time he played golf or one of the six operas he wrote in three years as a student2.

Whatever the reason, only one of the North's million-strong army had the decency to put in an appearance for the cameras, sticking his big-hatted head out the door of Panmungak while we were being shown round the dragon-themed pagoda next to Freedom House.

He disappeared for a bit then returned to study us through a pair of binoculars, probably on the off chance one of us would start mooning at him.

Or maybe get their cock out.

Or perhaps he was just a keen naturalist doing a spot of bird watching.

After all, the DMZ, while not so hot for humans, is a paradise for wildlife.

In fact, if you were to go for a ramble, you might just be lucky enough to get mauled by a Amur leopard or a Siberian tiger, just two of several endangered species living life to the max amid all the landmines and unexploded ordinance.

Sadly, I failed to clock any big cats while I was there.

However, from UNC Checkpoint Three, with its war memorial obelisk and commanding views of the front line, I was able to catch a glimpse of a big commie flag.

I say glimpse but it wasn't all that difficult to spot given that the North Korean flag in question is roughly the size of a three-storey house and flutters 160 m above ground at the top of the world's third largest flagpole3.

Big hats.

Big flags.

Whatever next?

A big switch as it turned out.

bridge of no return
No poohsticks by order: The Bridge of No Return. © Ignatius Rake

An otherwise unspectacular concrete bridge crossing an otherwise unspectacular tributary of the Imjin River, the Bridge of No Return is cut in two by the MDL.

As a result, like the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, it has become synonymous with Cold War prisoner swaps.

The most notable of these was Operation Big Switch, which took place between August and December 1953.

Following on from the somewhat smaller Operation Little Switch the previous April and May, Big Switch saw around 90,000 prisoners of war (POWs) brought to this unassuming river crossing and individually asked if they wanted to go home or live a new life with their captors.

The idea was that once they'd crossed there was no going back.

Hence the bridge's name (although this is actually a misnomer as prisoners had 90 days in which to change their minds).

Of the 76,000 North Koreans and Chinese brought to the bridge, 23,000 decided to remain in the South.

Of the 13,000 UNC soldiers given the same choice, 325 Koreans, 21 Americans and one Scotsman decided to give overt tyranny a go.

Not that they seemed to like it much.

Within a decade or so, practically all of the non-Korean UNC lot had whimpered back to the West with their tails between their legs, a number of them even picking up their army back pay and at least one opening a Chinese restaurant in Tennessee.

Despite the glorious sunshine and the birds singing in the trees, the Bridge of No Return was not the best place in the world to play poohsticks.

"It's very dangerous for soldiers here, not just tourists," Michelle said, informing us that hidden behind the bushes on the other bank lurked a shed load of North Koreans with much bigger popguns than pistols.

Guarding the bridge on the UNC side stood Checkpoint Four, which the notorious poplar tree had obscured and which had come to be known as 'the loneliest spot in the world'.

It had earned this sobriquet from all the abduction attempts the North had made on the MPs sent to man it over the years.

Now it just housed remote surveillance equipment.

The bus halted and we were allowed to take a few snaps but the doors stayed firmly shut, the engine ticking over all the time.

I was half expecting some bloke with a squeegee to run up and start cleaning the windscreen but strangely no one did.

Instead, we just made our return to Camp Bonifas, and in so doing further underscoring the inaccuracy of the bridge's name.

Although nobody else seemed to notice this as we trundled through a surreal patchwork of minefields and paddy fields, the latter tended by the only civilians to call the DMZ home: the inhabitants of the South's Freedom Village, who live under curfew and work under armed guard.

Yep, it was a strange old fish, the DMZ.

Remarkably leafy but probably not the best place for a picnic.

Or a flip-flops shop, come to think of it.


1) Showing its Cold War roots, the NNSC consists of the Swedes, the Swiss and kinda still the Poles but no longer the Czechs.

2) The man was amazing. Not only was he walking and talking just eight weeks after birth, but among many other superhuman feats Kimmy Boy could also change the weather with his mood. Better still, this donkey-eating, brother-killing, Elizabeth Taylor-worshipping despot also wrote at least 1,500 books but never once took a dump, which kinda suggests he was probably full of shit.

He certainly had style, though. According to the North Korean press, as cited by France 24 in a report dated April 7, 2010, his trademark two-piece boiler suits have now become a worldwide fashion craze. "Kim Jong-Il mode, which is now spreading expeditiously worldwide, is something unprecedented in the world’s history," an anonymous French fashion guru is claimed to have said.

3) The flag itself weighs more than a quarter of a tonne and was a response to a slightly smaller flag the South erected back in the days of Day-Glo socks and Wham!. There are only two taller free-standing flagpoles in the world: the National Flagpole in Baku, Azerbaijan (at 162 m) and the Dushanbe Flagpole in Tajikistan (at 165 m). The South's, by the way, is a piddler at just 98.4 m.

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